As models for ministry keep shifting, what’s a seminary to do?

On a recent flight in the friendly skies between Norfolk, Virginia, and Chicago, I happened upon a full-page advertisement for a computer typeface in the airline’s magazine. It proudly announced, “The Right Typeface Can Make Even Bad News Look Good.”

The visual focus was on an attractive, formal invitation—to an IRS audit.

I thought, “Now there’s a tip for ministry.”

Both churches and the IRS struggle with getting across a message. The most difficult element of the gospel message to communicate in our therapeutically oriented and success-driven culture is probably repentance, the call to a moral accounting. Any clear statement of God’s law, any reminder of our moral accountability, arouses in most Americans feelings akin to those experienced in response to an IRS audit.

This environment inescapably affects the educational preparation of ministers. Under the influence of mass media and the breakdown of institutional authority, churchgoing Americans are becoming religious consumers. They are choosing their own private forms of faith rather than relying on the authority of a tradition or a religious community. Popular taste is the father of religious expectations. Within American evangelicalism, seminaries and large churches have had to face squarely this new market orientation.

The so-called megachurches represent perhaps the clearest example of churches adapting to religious populism. While they maintain a conservative theology, these churches have grown rapidly because they appeal to the religious tastes of the unchurched. In 1984, only 100 American churches averaged more than 2,000 Sunday worshipers. Today that number has more than tripled, according to church-growth ...

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